Some perspective on the 3DS

Has it really been six years since Nintendo debuted the DS hardware at E3 to a hesitant press and grim forebodings? How far we’ve come. The 3DS’s public debut last week at E3 was a far cry from its predecessor’s first showing back at my very first E3. The new machine is a slick, solid piece of gaming hardware that wowed everyone. Seriously, I don’t know a single person who wasn’t impressed, and most of those people don’t even like handheld gaming. Compared to the E3 2004 prototype DS, a sorry-looking piece of cheap plastic whose value was difficult to communicate, the 3DS might as well be from a different company altogether.

I took a little time to photograph my favorite version of the 3DS, the glossy orange one. This color is much too classy for Nintendo of America to actually release here, so I wanted to capture evidence that it did exist once we’re given our generous choice of black and electric blue.

It’s heartening to see so many people — i.e., pretty much everyone — enthralled by the 3DS. It’s like a vindication of handheld gaming, almost. Maybe American gamers will actually take it seriously now! On the other hand, the only other time in history that press and industry folks have seemed unanimously positive about a portable console was back at the PSP launch, and well all know how that turned out. Nintendo’s made a good first impression, but the company’s been riding on top of the world for a while. If they slip, it’s a long and painful tumble down to the bottom.

So, let’s manage our expectations for the 3DS, shall we? It’s cool, it’s powerful, and it offers something new and exciting, yes. But the 3DS isn’t perfect, and it’s probably not a bad idea to take a tally of the complaints we’re going to see about the system once it’s actually out in the wild and in gamers’ hands. Avowed wet blankets can prep for their parade-raining attacks now; determined fanboys can start fortifying their bulwarks. This is a small public service I like to provide.

1. 3D doesn’t really add anything to games

This will, of course, be a matter of debate, because for some people the illusion of depth is intrinsically a value-added proposition. Beyond the cool factor — which, admittedly, has done a damn fine job of selling even staunch cynics on the machine — it’s hard to imagine 3D visualization having a material impact on gameplay. Even if it could, I don’t know that it can realistically happen when there’s a depth slider on the side of the hardware to turn the effect off, meaning that games will have to work both with and without 3D. Add to that the fact that Nintendo has already said the 3D effect shouldn’t be used by kids under seven since it will make them go blind as their brains explode or whatever and ultimately what you have is a very fancy graphical embellishment and nothing more. That will be more than enough for many gamers, but I bet there’ll be quite a few people who want something a little more substantial from their new tech.

2. The 3D effect doesn’t always work for people with vision problems

I approached the 3DS with great skepticism, because my awful eye problems (I’m a recovered amblyopic, and I have one farsighted eye and one nearsighted) make 3D effects extremely difficult for me to visualize. I’ve seen just one 3D film in the theatres so far, and it left me with a serious headache. My first impression of the 3DS was extremely positive, because it worked for me without a problem. But later I realized that first demo was a sort of “optimal situation” sort of deal, looking at a lot of still images. Once I tried some hands-on demos on the show floor, I found the 3D to be hit-and-miss. Once objects are in motion, my eyes strain a bit to make sense of the depth, and in some cases I can barely see the 3D at all. Our friend John Ricciardi had even worse luck; he wasn’t able to see the 3D even in those optimal demos. I still find 3DS a lot more pleasant to look at than everyone else’s 3D fakery, since it doesn’t make everything look dark and washed out like those stupid glasses do, but I foresee myself turning that depth slider down fairly often.

3. The screen has a terrible, terrible angle of viewing

The elephant in the room, and the reason Nintendo was adamant that no one film 3DS games directly off the screen. This is going to be the system’s make-or-break issue. The trick to the 3DS’s visualization technology is that it (apparently) layers two screens one on top of the other. When you look at it straight-on, it looks like 3D! But tilt the machine even just a couple of degrees from dead-on and suddenly the illusion shatters and what you see is two ghost images rather than a single unified “solid.” Look at it from a side-on, over-the-shoulder perspective and it’s even worse. In a sense, the 3DS is the conceptual opposite of the DSi XL; the latter was purportedly designed to be a system that encourages people to gather round a single system and watch, but try doing that with the former and everyone’s going to see something very ugly unless the depth slider is set to “off.” More crucially, though, the 3DS’s visual effect can break even for the person using the system if they don’t hold it very, very carefully. I found that the natural movement of my hands and head during a fast-paced action game like Starfox 64 caused the system to move out of alignment for me. I wonder what impact this will have for long-term play; if you have to hold the system very carefully at a precise angle, it’s going to become very tiring very quickly… to say nothing of the fact that the games which stand to benefit most from 3D visualization are the ones most likely to cause you to get you into the action and let your angle of viewing drift.

4. Hey wait, it’s pretty much just a DS whose top screen has been replaced by a PSP

There’s already a lot of debate about just how powerful the 3DS really is. My first impression was PSP quality… and then I saw Kid Icarus Uprising and Metal Gear Solid 3D in action and upgraded my opinion to “maybe even Wii level!” Later, I gave it some more thought and realized that the graphics seem to lack any sort of antialiasing, and that by and large the polygon models I’ve seen so far are roughly on par with PS2 at best. Ultimately I decided that it’s stupid to fuss about direct comparisons, because it’s kind of pointless; the only important question is whether or not games look great on the built-in screens, which they do. Still, the best way to explain the 3DS in terms of horsepower is that Nintendo basically added a DS’s touch screen beneath a PSP — heck, even the button layout is practically identical to a PSP’s, except that the analog nub and D-pad have been swapped around. That’s fine by me if it means we get games on par with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, but I wonder if it will fly with HD addicts once the 3D honeymoon is over?

5. All the colors Nintendo will release in North America are gonna suck.

I know. It is always thus. But at least we have our memories:

Good times, good times.

Let me stress again that this is not a post hating on the 3DS. You know me — I love playing portable games much more than sitting in front of a TV. Handhelds are intimate, personal, and offer way more flexibility. I’ve always been 1UP’s biggest advocate of portable gaming; I even gave the DS a fair shake back when it was widely regarded as a crappy last-ditch effort to compete with PSP. I’m absolutely excited for 3DS and the prospect of playing all the DS’s best games (and new ones) with better visuals and built-in communications features. That being said, the sheer adulation being heaped on 3DS after E3 is probably setting expectations for the system a little too high. It’s not going to change the world or anything, and it’s hardly without its drawbacks. Consider this a dose of measured enthusiasm from a fan. 3DS is gonna be great… just don’t expect it to be handheld Jesus come to rapture you away to gaming heaven or anything.

34 thoughts on “Some perspective on the 3DS

  1. The original DS was an ugly block of plastic, but I’ll say this for it: It was durable as hell, easily surviving several drops onto and slides along concrete with nothing but a few scuffs to show for it. And it makes an excellent battery-powered alarm clock. They all do, really, but I don’t use the Phat for anything else.

    I’m really looking forward to the 3DS, but not at all because of the 3-D. Seems like a tertiary feature at best — a fun little gimmick like the DSi’s camera.

  2. Actually, I wasn’t referring to the Phat. I mean the crappy prototype DS they showed at E3. It was a godawful piece of junk. Looked like a cheap plastic toy.

    The all-white Japanese DS Phat is still one of the classiest looking game systems ever!

  3. Ah! I didn’t get a good look at the prototype in person. But if it’s what I’m finding when I do a Google image search, then yeah. Ugh.

  4. Many have praised a strange aspect of 3D on the handheld: that they were able to see behind objects in the game, such as furniture. At first, that seemed unnecessary, unless you were to play the inevitable Vacuum Mama that has you busting hard-to-see dust bunnies. In all seriousness, though, I can see the effect working very well with Metal Gear Solid, enabling you to peek around corners while trying to remain undetected.

    I’m with you when it comes to remaining skeptical about actual gameplay enhancement and having serious vision concerns.

    Do you think DS and PSP colors in Japan are more sophisticated because Nintendo has already captured an adult market? I don’t think I can handle being seen with a Blue Radzberry one in public.

  5. So here’s a question, and one that we probably can’t answer at this time: Can the 3D effect be retrofitted to existing DS games? If you have some sort of z-buffer going on, maybe that could be read for the older games to create the 3D effect? It’d be an interesting proposition, at the very least. I would be surprised to see Nintendo try to market a few upgraded versions of games if the former proves impossible, though.

  6. Correction: I _wouldn’t_ be surprised. My brain is on the fritz today, apparently.

  7. I was a fan of the purple, myself. And for those not at E3, it was totally different from the GameCube purple. My friend describes the color as sort of a Grape Crush purple; it was spectacular.

    I’m also curious about the graphical capabilities of the hardware. The interactive trailer for Metal Gear Solid looked better than 95 percent of Wii titles, and Kid Icarus seemed on par with many Wii offerings. I was astounded to see how good Icarus appeared even when blown up on a large screen, like at Nintendo’s presser.

    Anyway, I think you point out legitimate complaints. As such, what do you think Nintendo will modify on the unit before it is finally released?

  8. I’m curious about how they’ll advertise it. I’ve been thinking about this for a lot of 3D stuff, and it seems like it will be difficult, if not impossible, to communicate how the 3D looks to a person unfamiliar with the technology in screenshots or standard video.

  9. As long as Nintendo doesn’t get cheeky and decides to charge more than $199 for this thing, I’ll be happy to spend a year with my 3DS before a model with a larger better viewing angle for the top screen is released in 2012.

  10. I disagree with point #1. I played the “Cat on a pogo stick” demo which is designed to show what 3D can add to the game. Jumping around in 3D was much easier to do than when I turned the 3D off. Judging distance was much less of a hassle. I am on the last level of Mario Galaxy 2 and there are these moving electrical lines just above the floor that are driving me crazy because I have trouble judging their position vs. Mario. After my experience at E3 I don’t think that a 3D version of that level would give me the same problems.

  11. Yeah, I missed the pogo cat demo thanks to the chaotic layout of the 3DS booth, but Frank Cifaldi says it’s practically unplayable without the 3D. But again, just because the potential is there doesn’t mean developers will fully explore it. I guess we’ll see.

  12. I guarantee there will be at least a handful of games that require the 3D, eventually, if not soon. I don’t see the depth slider deterring someone from exploring the tech as a game mechanic, if it’s something they really want to do.

  13. I must be crazy because I’d buy any of the colors they showed off. That purple is so damn sexy, but I’d be embarrassed to actually play in public with that one.

    And actually, with the Target Shooting demo, we see that it adds a lot to “augmented reality” stuff. I hear there was even a game running the very same game on the top and bottom screen (a platformer I believe) so one was normal 3D and the other was stereoscopic. And the non-stereoscopic one was much harder to play!

    That’s not to say we’ve had such problems with all platformers until now, but it just gives the developers the freedom to put the camera where they want without it affecting gameplay adversely.

  14. Added depth perception could be pretty huge for any 3d game, regardless of whether developers intentionally design with 3d in mind. Improved platforming seems the obvious example, but I can imagine shooters being affected quite a bit. There’s a reason guns feels so much better than anything else in traditional-3d action games: line of sight attacks work very well with limited depth perception. With visual 3d, arching weapons and melee weapons might be more natural to use. Of course we won’t know until how well it’ll affect gameplay until the thing is out, but I’m hopeful.

  15. telosfortelos makes some salient points. I think there will inevitably be games that require the 3D and for which the slider will be disabled. 3D may be just a gimmick in movies, but videogames are so much about what you perceive and how you interpret what’s on the screen that I think reasonably talented developers are gonna find myriad ways to “use” it, even if some heretofore unheard of genre ISN’T created (but maybe some “sub genres” will be).

  16. Oh my god that orange 3DS IS beautiful. They’re region-locking these things now, right? If they don’t release that thing here I’d definitely import it if it could play US games…

  17. Let me add to my previous point with an example: a game like Defense of the Ancients isn’t possible in traditional 3d. I’m not referring to the control of the character or field of view, obviously those things can’t be reflected in 3d, but specifically I’m thinking about how each unit affects the map spatially. Spacing and movement and timing are essential, and those things aver very difficult to implement in a 3d world. Added depth perception could change that dramatically. In that way, arching attacks, aoe attacks, and melee attacks could substantially change the way 3d action games play out.

    Of course we don’t really know if these things will work out now, but I look forward to finding out.

  18. I’d be ecstatic with a 3DS if it includes a Virtual Console with access to the Wii VC titles. People could either purchase them on their Wii and transfer them to their 3DS’s or vice versa. I don’t really care so long as I can get classic 16-bit console and GBA games (read RPGs and Mario) on a handheld without having to go knock a girl up to sell my first born to get a copy of a game for the GBA/SNES/Genesis etc.

    Heck if Nintendo would release a VC for the DSiWare shop I’d go out and buy a DSi today.

  19. I was born without the ability to appreciate colours, but my God, that orange 3DS belongs in my arms. Cradled.

  20. Er, huh…that was odd. Anyway, what I said was thank you to all of you rooting for the Orange 3DS. I personally really like it, and before this all I’d seen were people complaining about that color. :P

  21. Parish, did you see the Resident Evil demo video by any chance? It’s on youtube by now.

    The thing looks much better than the PSP. Peace Walker, which is impressive enough for a handheld, has no facial animation, ghastly dithering, and poor textures. While the poly count isn’t all that impressive on the 3DS, the textures are fantastic. At least, that’s the impression I get with Resident Evil and MGS3. Not so much with Kid Icarus, which looks a generation behind the others, oddly enough.

  22. The RE5 demo was a non-interactive movie. We’ll see how things actually look in motion. I’m sure the animation limitations in Peace Walker were strictly an issue of RAM, and so far I haven’t seen hard info on how 3DS holds up in that regard.

  23. If the 3DS makes people reluctant to wear 3D glasses anymore when watching movies or TV, I say it’s already won.

  24. I’d pay the extra to import the orange, too, if I had to. It has the extra added bonus of being super reminiscent of the Donkey Kong Game & Watch!

  25. Parish, did you play the bunny-on-a-pogostick techdemo? It was intended to show how 3D visuals could really enhance 3D-platformers, making it easier to see how far platforms were apart. Judging by some of Iwata’s statements, Nintendo is really thinking about how to use 3D beyond cheap gimmickry. I’m interested in that.

  26. Thinking about the 3DS and looking over the images again and again, I really worry about the placement of the D-pad. I feel like controlling games with it will be rather uncomfortable.

  27. Yeah, that D-Pad looks like a disaster. But I’m willing to make concessions for a decent facsimile of a joystick on a handheld. Unlike everyone else, I thought the PSP did a decent job, and this looks even better.

    About the colors, though: anything other that black looks awful due to the black panel on the top screen. Is there a reason why it is black on all the models?

  28. “@Udiras: Wouldn’t they need to include air-sickness bags with each title?”

    Only if they also include complete peripheral-vision eliminating blinders to provide the authentic blocking-out-all-but-the-virtual-world experience, I’d think.

    But yeah, they should totally release a Virtual Boy nostalgia pack, for the five and a half people who played Virtual Boy games enough to be nostalgic for them.

  29. Hey Jeremy! I just stumbled on your blog looking for details for the 3DS and wow! I like your review of the system very much! Thank you for your thoughts!

    I am personally very very excited for this thing. I loved Avatar when it came out and loved how the 3D technology has evolved. Although I still don’t buy the 3DTVs though. They are just too expensive for my taste and most of all, those glasses are very inconvenient to use. (Not to mention pricey! $350 a pop)

    I hope Nintendo sells this baby at a good and fair price. Do you have an estimate how much Nintendo would sell this beast? I think that may be one of the major factors of its success!

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